Book Review: "Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror" by Mahmood Mamdani


If ever a world-wide poll of Muslims is conducted on the question of America’s relations with the world of Islam, it would not be far-fetched to speculate on the possible outcome: DECEIT!

Under this rubric, Muslims from the Southern-most point of Africa through Asia and the Middle East will invariably label America’s conduct as dishonest, duplicitous, double-dealing, treacherous and unscrupulous.

As more information unearths various layers of deceit, including the recent admission by Condoleezza Rice about "being mistaken" regarding allegations of Iraq’s "weapons of mass destruction", many would wonder how many more similar "mistakes" will result in death and destruction of countless populations.

Since deceit and lies have become hallmarks of American domestic and foreign policy, it would be naive to believe that "mistakes" of the type which have devastated Iraq, will disappear. It would also be highly improbable to expect the American judicial system to prosecute these perpetrators of naked aggression against innocent people as war criminals. This much is clear for the Commander-in-Chief of the "War on Terror" has been inaugurated for his second term in office.

The policy makers under his command, whether they are described as neo-cons or likudniks, can in any event be safely assumed to be driven by hegemonic interests of such horrendous proportions and equally disastrous results, that deceit becomes an indispensable tool in their awesome armoury.

A valuable new contribution to unearth and interpret America’s bizarre conduct is Mahmood Mamdani’s study "Good Muslim, Bad Muslim." [1]

The author, a distinguished political scientist and anthropologist, explains that the book grew out of a talk at a church in New York after 9/11 when to bear an identifiably Muslim name was to be made aware that Islam had become a political identity in America.

Can a great power such as America be struck with amnesia? Mamdani who is a Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University, says that he got this impression listening to the public discussion in America after 9/11. Since the event was undeniably of epochal significance, it does not justify taking it out of a historical and political context insists the author. "Unfortunately, official America has encouraged precisely this."

After an unguarded reference to pursuing a "crusade", President Bush moved to distinguish between "good Muslims" and "bad Muslims" explains Mamdani, and devotes 300 pages divided into four chapters to explore and interpret its ramifications.

This refreshing study provides an invaluable insight to terms bandied about loosely by many analysts today. It deals with questions which are usually overlooked by many American journalists in their haste to conform their analysis with official US policies. For instance, Mamdani asserts that political violence in modern society that does not fit the story of progress tends to get discussed in theological terms and cites the example of the Holocaust, which is explained as "simply the result of evil".

Perhaps the heart of this book can be found in the first chapter titled "Culture Talk; Or How Not to Talk about Islam and Politics". The author is able to penetrate the limits of conventional discourse on democracy and dictatorship, poverty and wealth and also succeeds in locating "culture" within the chasm of globalisation. As he explains, unlike the culture studied by anthropologists – face-to-face, intimate, local and lived – the talk of culture is highly politicised and comes in large geo-packages.

Hence linking "terrorism" to Islam and the grossly abused term of "Islamic terrorism" is a consequence of Culture Talk. The lucid arguments advanced by Mamdani in support of his thesis provide readers with an array of tools to probe deeper or simply to acknowledge his profound contribution.

Not only does the author succeed in tracing the footprints of malevolent historians who during the era of the Cold War were responsible for stigmatising Africans as the prime examples of people not capable of modernity; he also does so with equal success in detailing how Islam has displaced Africa as "the hard premodern core" in a rapidly globalising world.

Mahmood Mamdani’s thorough research opens many doors to an entirely refreshing vista of a past and present inextricably linked to most of the world’s pressing issues today.


"Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror"
by Mahmood Mamdani
Publisher: Pantheon